Book Review

Eric Siblin’s tour of Bach’s Cello Suites proves accessible and informative

Let’s get right to it: Eric Siblin’s book on the Cello Suites is superb, and an excellent read whether you’re a professional or an amateur. Music is filled with so many “what if” scenarios, that I’ve actually contemplated starting a regular feature on the blog for it. One of the big ones is fully explored in Mr. Siblin’s book. In sum, Johann Sebastian Bach is one of the three-to-five most important composers to ever have lived. His cello suites are basically the Bible for professional cellists and violists, and transcriptions exist for virtually every instrument a person can think of. None of these transcriptions or arrangements can be checked against Bach’s own manuscript though, because no known copies of the music in the composer’s hand survives. How did this happen? When was the music rediscovered? How did it grow from being considered a series of etudes to being the crown jewel in every cellist’s solo repertoire? What if that original manuscript had survived?

Mr. Siblin essentially writes three books here, but their stories are interwoven. The first book tells the story of Johann Sebastian Bach from when he was just a twinkling in his father’s eye, to his sons dealing with his legacy. This is where Mr. Siblin’s background as a journalist serves him best. There are very few direct accounts of Bach’s life, so few that were a person to try to conjure up a direct, objective view of Bach’s life, it would be short, uninformative, and not very interesting. Mr. Siblin has to make some educated guesses to make the story interesting, and he earns his readers trust by owning the fact that he actually knows very little. All of his detective work is rooted in the music, and in the few documents that remain. These are no flights of fancy, as Mr. Siblin carefully explains how he has connected the dots to form the silhouette of Bach’s life.

The second story told in this book as that of Pablo Casals, the Catalan cellist who almost single-handedly lifted the cello suites from obscurity into their current place of reverence. Not dealing with a dearth of documentation, the story-telling in these parts of the book have much more definition to them. These parts of the book have some of the most emotionally powerful moments in the book, as they tell of the Spanish Civil War, the coming of fascism, and how these events transformed the world-famous cellist into an aspiring peace-maker.

The third story is Mr. Siblin’s own – how he came to be aware of the music, and his own exhaustive search for any clues as to where the music comes from. These sections often provided needed breaks from the sometimes dire events taking place in 1930s Spain, and discuss things such as Mr. Siblin’s experiences taking cello lessons, searching archives in Brussels, and interviews with professional musicians. These sections of the book are crucial, as Mr. Siblin allows his fellow music enthusiast readers to connect with him, and live vicariously through him.

The most impressive feat that Mr. Siblin accomplishes here is the fact that all three stories are told with equal integrity and skill. Mr. Siblin manages to keep complex musical ideas simple, without making the professional musician in me feel as though I were being talked down to. The detective work into Bach’s life is very interesting, and while it doesn’t always feel as though it’s on point, I didn’t really care because it was so well-written. The reading of the words of the page is quite entertaining – although this is Mr. Siblin’s first book, one gets the feeling that he could have written a book on the history of onions, and it would have been interesting to read. Equally appealing to both the professional and the enthusiast, I highly recommend this book to all.

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